Whore Next Door: Rage Against HIV Decriminalization

Why preach to the converted when you can preach for the seroconverted?

(Photograph by Isabel Dresler/Isabeldresler.com)

Controversial San Francisco Supervisor-turned-state Senator Scott Wiener is in trouble again, having introduced a bill (SB 239) that would reclassify the act of knowingly transmitting HIV to another person from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Criticized by his constituents over his positions on affordable housing and outlawing public nudity outside of permitted events, Wiener has a history of backing unpopular legislation. If people weren’t furious about the 2011 nudity law, this brought Wiener’s critics to new heights of rage.

HIV decriminalization is not always an easy concept for people to wrap their heads around.

I grew up in the early ’90s, when fear and misinformation about the specifics of transmission were rampant. I remember busting my lip at the skating rink and rushing over to the communal sink to rinse the blood from my face. Someone came up behind me and accidentally came into contact with some of my blood. (I was 6, and not yet great at crisis management). The person screamed, “Oh my god, AIDS!” and ran away in terror. Even at 6 years old, I understood that he was being ridiculous — but I also knew he didn’t think he was.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is different than it was when I was a little girl, but ignorance about the realities of the virus is still prevalent.

Many people don’t realize that HIV-positive individuals with access to treatment are often able to reduce their viral loads to undetectable levels. Subsequently, they’re unable to transmit the virus to anyone else. People with HIV can now live long, healthy lives, and — so long as the fate of the Affordable Care Act stays out of jeopardy — that prognosis will only get better.

This is why laws drafted during a time of rampant ignorance and fear ought to be reworked to better serve the public’s health.

Long before “fake news” was the cry of every mansplainer who didn’t like the way a fact made him feel, Wiener enraged pundits on the far right when he calmly explained to an O’Reilly Factor camera crew that, “Fox News is not real news. You’re not a real reporter. I only talk to real reporters. Fox News is not real news.”

Bill O’Reilly never forgets, so he raked Wiener over the coals once he caught wind of SB 239.

“If giving someone HIV isn’t a crime, electing this guy to office sure is,” O’Reilly said, shortly before retelling the “Fox News is not real news” story like a jealous ex-boyfriend who has yet to find closure.

Despite substantial evidence that harm-reduction approaches produce superior results to criminalization when it comes to marginalized populations, people are reluctant to say goodbye to the scapegoat of HIV crimes.

However, broad coalition support from the HIV community now includes the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

As with sex work and drug use, further criminalizing an already stigmatized population rarely results in a positive public-health outcome. Harm-reduction models of advocacy are becoming the norm as more organizations realize that policing the acts of consenting adults is rarely effective, whereas increasing access and options for marginalized populations has a greater chance of success.

Of course, maliciously infecting a person with an incurable virus is an insidious act. But with the historic discrimination and institutionalized violence people living with HIV have faced, further criminalizing their status only contributes to the shame and stigma that discourages people from accessing services and treatment. A crackdown on imagined bogeymen who use their bodies as chemical weapons is, however attractive to some conservatives, nothing more than finding scapegoats. In the fight to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the real villains of HIV transmission are much harder to criminalize. Poverty, incarceration, institutionalized racism, and homophobia are the true culprits — but no one is drafting legislation to shut down for-profit prisons as a way to combat the spread of HIV.

At the end of the day, the communities most at risk of HIV transmission are also some of the most underserved populations in our society. SB 239 is just one more step toward ending the misguided system of mandatory minimum sentencing, and of dismantling the multitude of ways being poor, brown, or queer is criminalized in this country.

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